Two Zhikrs

             ©2020 R Hodges


In the early 70’s the “Whirling Dervishes” gave a performance at Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley. I found out about it accidentally and bought a ticket. When I got there I was surprised to see many senior people from the Gurdjieff Foundation, including our teacher Lord Pentland. As a fairly recent student of Gurdjieff, the leaders had not invited me.

There was a short verbal introduction. The audience was told this was not a “performance” but actually a serious religious ritual of the Mevlevi Sufi order, commonly known as Whirling Dervishes because of the whirling they do in their ritual dance, which is meant to help them receive and transmit higher energies. The ritual was one form of “Zhikr”, which means in Arabic “remembrance”, i.e. remembrance of God. The audience was asked to express their respect by not applauding at the end of the ritual.

The ritual started with some incantations. Then music started up—oriental rhythms on frame drum accompanied by nay flute and singing. It went on quite some time. Then the dervishes stood up and removed their outer brown garments revealing flowing white robes. I don’t remember the exact sequence but eventually they formed a circle and each began turning in place, keeping the left foot more or less in place with the right foot stepping around it, so that the body “whirled” counterclockwise. Then The individual whirling dervishes processed counterclockwise like planets moving around a sun, represented by a senior dervish, the “Sheikh”, who moved around in the interior of the circle. Sometimes they would all stop turning and gathered in small groups of two and three leaning against each other, as if for support. The whole thing touched me immensely.

After the ritual came to an end, I overheard some of the Gurdjieff people I knew speaking quietly about getting together with the dervishes at the home of a person I knew very well, a good friend and university colleague. I went to him and asked if I could come to the get-together. He seemed horrified at the suggestion and said very sharply “No!” I was mortified, but I understood that I had exceeded my place by asking such a thing.

Two days later the same dervishes were to give a similar performance in San Francisco. Again, I bought a ticket. The hall was larger. There were no other Gurdjieff people in the audience. The ritual did not have quite the spiritual depth I had experienced at Zellerbach. Nevertheless it was very interesting.

I decided to try on my own to make contact with the dervishes. I went backstage but found myself too shy to actually approach one of them. This shyness was quite unusual for me. After half an hour I was just about to give up and leave when one of them approached me and said in heavily accented English “come with me”. I followed him to a waiting van filled with others. We drove to a nearby hotel. Encouraged by gestures of invitation I followed them to a large hotel suite. There were probably 30 or 40 men in the room. One of them spoke fairly good English. He engaged me in a conversation.

I said I was interested in their music, especially the rhythmic drumming. I was at the time practicing the piano music composed to accompany Gurdjieff’s Sacred Dances. The dervish who spoke English handed me a drum and asked me to play. I beat out a simple rhythm but was aware of how lacking it was in inner sensation, compared to the way they had played. He laughed gently and shook his head saying something like “your rhythm seems different from ours.”

I asked questions and was told several things about the group. They were performing the famous whirling Zhikr of the Mevlevi dervishes, the order founded by Rumi. They had been given permission to do this on tour even though they were not actually Mevlevi themselves but belonged to several different orders. There were several men in their young teens—I asked if they were dervishes too. I was told there was a custom that a child might sometimes be given to a dervish order to raise, such children would eventually become full members and stay within the order their whole live. A number of these dervishes had been such children.

At a certain moment the men cleared furniture from the center of the room. I had no idea what was going on but tried to follow along. A little ritual of pretending to wash one’s face and hands with imaginary water was performed, which I imitated. Later I learned that washing is an important ritual before entering a mosque for prayer; there is always a fountain in the mosque courtyard for this purpose. Also there were some simple bowing and prostrations and prayers. I did my best to mumble along.

Then the men formed a circle and held hands I joined in. We began to sway rhythmically, chanting “La ilaha il’alllah,” which I happened to know is a Muslim confession of faith meaning “There is no god other than Allah” (or perhaps “there are no gods, only the One”). A drummer and a nay flutist played a most charming counterpoint accompaniment. The main Sheikh moved around inside the circle, sometime stopping in front of a dervish and looking at him very seriously, perhaps saying a word or two. When he did this for me I felt something very strong, but of course did not understand anything with my mind.

The chant and the swaying became gradually faster and faster. At a certain point the chant became simply “Allah…Allah…Allah”. Everyone’s breathing synchronized with the quite rapid chant and movement. It took a very strong physical effort to keep up, a joyful effort.

I lost all sense of time. It became quite late, maybe 3 in the morning. On some signal everything stopped. We remained standing in the circle with bowed heads, in a sublime silence. This lasted several minutes. Finally the spell was broken, men began talking quietly, embracing, smiling. I felt something I never previously or since experienced—total brotherly love, a communion those with whom I had shared something very special. A real Zhikr.

I have to confess to later feeling that I had gotten rather the better of the senior Gurdjieff people who gathered at my friend's house. Discreet inquiries gave me the impression that in fact nothing very special had happened there, it was just a friendly sort of party, with questions and answers. No drinks of course, Muslims do not drink alcohol.

Years later someone told me that he had met one of the dervishes who had been at the Zhikr. He remembered me and said “we thought he was some kind of dervish”.